Another poorly written word problem

Textbooks have included the occasional awful problem ever since Pebbles Flintstone and Bamm-Bamm Rubble chiseled their homework on slate tablets while attending Bedrock Elementary. But even with the understanding that there have been children have been doing awful homework problems since the dawn of time (and long before the advent of the Common Core), this gem that was assigned to Texas 5th graders is a doozy.


I get what the textbook wants the student to do: rounding to the nearest $10 and developing the skill of approximating a sum without actually laboriously computing the sum exactly. According to this logic, $54.26 gets rounded to $50 and $34.34 gets rounded to $30. So Fran spends about $80, and (according to this logic) so she has about $20 left. So the textbook wants the student to answer B.

But this is wrong on so many levels only destined to confuse parents and children alike.

First, the actual answer, without using approximations, is $11.40. Undeniably, $5 (answer C) is closer to $11.40 than $20 (answer B).

Second, it’s entirely reasonable and appropriate for students to approximate to either the nearest dollar or else the nearest $5. Indeed, nothing in this problem says that the rounding must occur to the nearest $10… I’d imagine that this could only be inferred from the context of other problems on the page. By rounding to the nearest dollar, Fran would have about $12 left. By rounding to the nearest $5, Fran would have about $10 left. And there’s nothing “wrong” with either of these approximations.

Third, in real life, Fran would not say that it would cost about $80 to buy the sneakers and shirt. In real life, Fran would always round up to be sure that she has enough money to complete the transaction. If Fran keeps rounding to the nearest $10, she’ll end up short of money at the cash register sooner or later. So while rounding up or down may be appropriate for some problems, it probably shouldn’t be advocated for the sake of financial literacy.

In short, this problem does little except confuse students and get them to hate math. I do advocate that children should be able to estimate a sum without finding it. This is one of the standards for teaching Texas 5th graders mathematics:

Number, operation, and quantitative reasoning. The student estimates to determine reasonable results. The student is expected to use strategies, including rounding and compatible numbers to estimate solutions to addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division problems. Source:

That said, this particular problem is an exceptionally poor way of determining whether students have acquired that skill. It’s hard to believe that this problem survived the proofreading process before the textbook was published.

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